In an effort to be Smarter, we’ve been reading Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein.
Dickstein’s book is filled with all sorts of Thoughts and Information on the 1930s. One example is an analysis of Depression-era films, specifically the Oscar-nominated musical, 42nd Street (1933).
Here are Dickstein’s conclusions:
Until [the end]…nothing goes well, but this is just the point. The show does go on, and the show itself is the main success story, embracing the individual triumph of everyone who made it. This is a perfect thirties paradox: success in show business is individual, but the overall triumph…belongs to the ensemble, the collective effort. (p.239)
Now, this description might make it seem like 42nd Street is a thinly-disguised lecture on Getting Along With Others, but it’s not. It’s a real treat to watch. It has interesting characters, witty lines, gorgeous Orry-Kelly costumes and Busby Berkeley choreography.
A perfectly-cast Warner Baxter is Julian Marsh, a gruff and stressed-out director of Broadway plays, whose “home” theatre is the 42nd Street Theatre. However, the term “42 Street” is also a reference to the New York theatre district. Even though the action takes place with one theatre company, we understand this to be symbolic of the industry.
Baxter’s character learns that he has a serious illness, and realizes – for financial reasons – he needs to direct one last Big Show before his health forces him to retire.
Baxter’s determination to have a hit show is propped up by its famous lead actress (Bebe Daniels), who ensures the play’s financial stability by befriending the rich producer (Guy Kibbee) while carrying on a secret romance with her boyfriend (George Brent). But when she breaks her ankle, a rookie cast member (Ruby Keeler) is enlisted to take her place onstage.
Yes, this sounds like a cliché plot, but it feels authentic in 42nd Street because the script never lets us forget how desperate the early 1930s are – or how desperate Baxter himself is.
Just before Keeler is to make her first onstage appearance at the premiere, Baxter pulls her aside for some last-minute words. He’s not giving her a pep talk; he’s pleading with her to be triumphant.
“You listen to me, and you listen hard,” he says, fiercely squeezing her arms. “Two hundred people, 200 jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you… You can’t fall down. You can’t. Because your future’s in this, my future, everything all of us have is staked in you.”
It’s an unexpectedly heart-warming film. Competition in the theatre is tough, but a wise-cracking chorus member (Ginger Rogers) takes the novice Keeler under her wing early in the film. “Stick with us, kid,” she says kindly, “and you’ll come in on the tide.” As Dickstein points out, the script promotes a working together for the Greater Good. There is no success unless all succeed.
42nd Street was the first Busby Berkeley musical from Warner Bros., but all is not glamour. The film makes us aware how much work goes into a Broadway production; cast members are actually shown sweating. But this draws us into the narrative, so when Warner Baxter begs Ruby Keeler not to fail, he’s begging for all of us.
If you’re looking for a film that pulls you into the spirit of the early 1930s, you’ll want to check out 42nd Street.
42nd Street: starring Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent. Directed by Lloyd bacon. Written by Rian James & James Seymour. Warner Bros, Pictures and Vitaphone, 1933, B&W, 89 mins.